As I made my way from Ann Arbor to Detroit, I was expecting to get up close and personal with Motown history. With the other members my project group in CAAS 458: The Music of Motown, I was headed to a salon on West Grand Boulevard to conduct an interview with Mary E. Moore, an 81-year-old beautician who had styled the hair of David Ruffins of The Temptations.
I just didn’t know how close we would actually get to that history.
The salon, Beauty Box, is on the same block as the small house that had served as the first base of operations for Motown Records. The house, which Motown Records founder Berry Gordy dubbed “Hitsville USA,” now houses the Motown Historical Museum. Having known the Gordy family during the height of Motown, Moore was sure to have a wealth of firsthand accounts to share with my project group.
As we pulled up to Beauty Box, we passed a film crew in front of Hitsville USA. I wondered what might be going on, but didn’t think much it. My uncle had told me there is always something happening in front of the studio — if it isn’t a camera crew, then it’s a group of foreign tourists carrying the torch of Motown fandom. With this year being the 50th anniversary of Motown, the production in front of the building was more than appropriate.
Before visiting Moore, my group and I decided to tour Hitsville to see what we could learn from the exhibits. But we didn’t even have to enter the house before a larger-than-life spectacle stopped me in my tracks. It was Berry Gordy — the man, the legend — standing at the corner, surrounded by a posse. We learned later that he had brought the film crew for a documentary he is making about Motown. All I could do was stare as I tried to reconcile my excitement with my knowledge of his notorious career of building musicians up just to undercut them when they became profitable.
Snapping out of my daze, I went inside to begin the tour in a video room, where we watched a montage of Motown artists discuss fond memories from their early days. Our tour guide then escorted the group upstairs and started explaining how Gordy’s family experiences influenced how he later managed Motown — coming from a family of eight, he learned to foster both communal bonding and fierce competition among his musicians.
We were upstairs for about five minutes when the elevator door opened. Gordy and his entourage flooded out just feet from us. One of my group members, Carol, immediately introduced herself. I followed suit, and as he took my hand, Gordy said, “I know you weren’t born when this music was made.” The guided tour was over for me then. All I wanted to do was listen to the man responsible for delivering a litany of songs that crafted my musical tastes when I was just a child. I wanted to simply observe this historic figure.
I stood there, struck with the realization that I was receiving history from the original sources (albeit, a slightly skewed version). Radiating passionately as he described his company, Gordy maintained that above all else, Motown was built on the love and compassion that he had first experienced in his own family. He continued, saying, “My goal was not just fame for the artists but longevity.” This priority comes across in the prolific careers of his classic groups: The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes and The Miracles. This success could only happen because the song lyrics were so simple and the rhythms so crisp and moving. Beyond that, Motown music was the “sound of young America.”
Listening to all of this, I recognized a lot of information I had learned from class and elsewhere. But in that moment, everything held more weight. Either I felt this way because of the serendipity oozing out of this chance meeting, or Gordy was, honestly, being sincere. What really affected me was when Gordy gave reasons for his success: “I was happy with myself. I’ve been happy since I was an eight-year-old little boy,” he said.
At that point, I was suddenly overcome by emotion. I was moved by his frankness, but also by the stark contrast between his perspective of himself and Motown and common history’s view of his career. Even today, Gordy’s notoriety still reminds us of his disregard for copyright or intellectual property and his refusal to credit and regularly pay jazz musicians.
But I found it powerful that Gordy had the ability to set aside what other people thought of him and still carry on. He doesn’t see the Berry Gordy paradox. When he said that being happy with oneself is all that matters, he meant it as his life’s code. It seems that, as human beings, we tend to associate complexity with worth — the more complex something is, the more we value it. But here was a pioneer of American music telling me that Motown was derived from pure, sweet, personal satisfaction. Motown itself is not overly simplistic, but its lyrics allowed the Motown sound to be universal, reaching both white and black audiences. This quality is the reason Motown still reaches a broad audience, even ones that are removed from any historical or cultural connection of the times. That’s one of the reasons why foreign tourists march up to Hitsville’s doorstep each year.
Especially in academic-minded settings, we are constantly evaluated on what we are lacking so that we can fill that void and move on to addressing another one. It is this very idea of constant striving that made me so emotional in Gordy’s presence. I rarely concentrate on the present. T he simplicity of being happy with oneself is so obvious in my mind, yet it is a constant challenge. Personal improvement and self-satisfaction are not mutually exclusive — allowing yourself to be happy with what you have done and with who you are only allows your potential to flourish. That was an idea reiterated by the great Berry Gordy, who told us as we left Hitsville USA: “Keep yourself simply. Keep yourself simply because the world is complex.”
—Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen is a senior photo editor for The Michigan Daily